Tirana―Until recently, few refugees chose poverty-stricken Albania as a pit stop on their perilous trek towards wealthy EU countries. But with the so-called western Balkan migrant trail now shut, the number of Syrians arriving in Albania is on the rise.
Migrants are “trying to find new paths to get to European Union countries” after nations along the route up from Turkey and Greece significantly increased their border security, interior ministry spokesman Ardi Bide told AFP.
Instead of going through Macedonia and Serbia, people attempt to reach the EU via some of the poorest member states including Bulgaria and Albania.
Although authorities have not released official data on asylum requests, police said they have blocked 2,300 people at the Albanian border since the start of the year.
For many, “Albania is now the only solution for refugees to move on,” said Syrian Guwan Belei.
The 28-year-old arrived in mid-June in Albania’s only migrant reception center, located in the capital Tirana.
Some 200 migrants currently stay at the 180-bed facility.
Belei has applied for asylum here but does not hide that for him “like for others, Albania is now a gateway in contrast to Serbia and Macedonia, which have closed their borders”.
“Many prefer to seek political asylum in Albania because during the proceedings it leaves them time to find solutions to move to Montenegro and Bosnia, and from there get to Germany, Denmark or another country,” the 28-year-old told AFP.
Germany has become one of asylum-seekers’ favored destinations since Chancellor Angela Merkel threw open the border in 2015 in the face of the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
However, the decision to allow in more than a million migrants has cost Merkel politically and put her current coalition under threat.
Migrants, meanwhile, are largely oblivious to the political storm their arrival is causing in the EU.
At Tirana’s camp, newly-arrived migrants wait in front of the small brick building while others are stepping out with backpacks, possibly hoping to try to cross the border into Montenegro, 100 kilometres (60 miles) further north.
The route through Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia before reaching EU member Croatia is rather treacherous, steep and mountainous.
But that is not enough to deter 26-year-old Berivan Alus and her husband Asmar from trying to reach western Europe.
The couple from Afrin, in northwestern Syria, said they were forced to leave behind their three-year-old twin girls with the grandparents because the journey was too dangerous.
Showing photos of their children, the couple told AFP they had already crossed “fields, mountains and rivers” on foot or in small boats, “in the mud and in the rain”.
They reached Albania’s border from Syria with the help of traffickers who charged them 10,000 euros ($11,000).
Their stay here is “just to save time” while they find a way to move on, the couple said.
Fearing smugglers’ violence, others “prefer to get away just with GPS,” said Syrian Kasim Yaakoum, 29.
Either way, “nobody wants to stay in Albania, a poor country,” said his fellow countryman Yasser Alnablis, 22.
Balkans interior ministers met in Brussels over the issue Monday.
Bosnia, the last country on this new route via Albania before the EU, is particularly confronted with an increasing influx.
Montenegro has also voiced concerns over its porous border with Albania.
But Tirana, which hopes to open EU membership talks, insists it manages “to cope ... despite the growing number of those who have arrived on its territory”.
The government also rejected recent rumors that was planning to open a larger refugee camp with EU aid.
“Albania has taken all the measures to strengthen its border and cooperate with other Balkan countries and EU authorities, including Frontex [to] better control the situation”, deputy interior minister Rovena Voda told AFP.